The text of the sermon, based on Luke 16.1-13 with reference to Amos 8.4-7, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 19, 2022.
“The owner commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
Jesus tells a story of a manager, who, about to be fired, reduces the bills of the owner’s debtors, hoping the grateful debtors will return the favor, taking him in when he is out on the street. The owner’s reaction? Commendation for the manager’s prudence!
Nonsense! Even if the owner’s commendation was his begrudged admiration, what makes sense is that the manager was shameless and the owner, stupid!
I wonder. Did Jesus have a bad day? Did he begin with a good idea, but lose his train of thought? Or did Luke misremember and misquote Jesus?
On immediate second thought, we can’t dismiss this story as nonsense. For two reasons. One, our possessions. Two, how we use them.
Jesus talked about this more than any other subject. Including sex. Given the constant raging debates in the church about human sexuality, we might wish Jesus had said more about sex. But he didn’t (or, if he did, his teachings weren’t recorded). He did talk at length about wealth (and those sayings are recorded).
Why? Because our attitudes and actions concerning our possessions are not merely material matters, but spiritual. How we deal with our “stuff” says as much about who we are as anything else; including our familial histories, our choices of friends, our vocations, and our social, political, and religious views.
So, let’s look again at this seemingly nonsensical story.
The manager squandered, mismanaged the owner’s property. (Perhaps engaging in the kind of double-dealing of overcharging or under valuation that the Prophet Amos condemns. Or like Matthew, a tax collector, before Jesus called him into discipleship, typically billing more than the amount due and pocketing the difference.) The manager, adding insult to injury, apparently falsifies the business accounts.
But to explain my use of the terms “seemingly” and “apparently”, a bit of the backstory. In the ancient eastern Mediterranean mercantile world, a manager was less a servant and more an agent of the owner, empowered to conduct business. And, with each transaction, managers could charge a fee for themselves. Therefore, when the manager rewrites the bills, he’s cutting his own commission. The owner will be repaid the original amount of the debt, not a penny more or less; losing nothing.
Having resolved this glaring nonsensicality, this parable, again, is about our possessions and what we do with them. Jesus, in a decidedly confrontational way, calls us to look into the face of crisis. A crisis of recognition and response.
Crisis. From the Greek, meaning to separate or to choose. The manager will be fired. Separated from what he has (and, given that one’s work defined one’s value, personally and communally, who he is). A radical change demanding a radical choice. This was not a time for passively sitting on his hands or joining them in prayer, hoping that things, somehow, would get better. This was a time for action.
Jesus confronts us with the crisis of being fired. Not from a job, but from life.
By “fired from life,” I don’t mean physical death, but rather the spiritual death of living without recognizing and responding faithfully to this cardinal characteristic of life…
There is nothing that we possess that we have provided solely by ourselves for ourselves. Nothing! To one degree or another, someone or something has placed everything into our hands. Yes, concerning our possessions, we exercised our personal industry: the creativity of our thinking, the sweat of our brow, the intensity of our commitment. Yet always we benefit from innumerable uncontrollable factors: family connections, genetic predispositions for strength, endurance, and mental acuity, good fortune, dumb luck. Therefore, no one ever can say, “What I have, I have by my hand and my hand alone!”
And, although trite, it’s true that we can’t take it with us. According to the old saying: “I’ve never seen a Brink’s truck follow a hearse to the cemetery.”
So, recognizing that we alone do not provide what we possess, which we can’t take with us, of all the possible responses to this immutable reality, Jesus calls us to be prudent, shrewd, wise in the use of our possessions.
And here’s another aspect of the crisis of choice. Jesus gives us no hard-and-fast rules, no tidy definitions of wisdom, no universally applicable, fail-safe instructions for all situations. What he does say, in effect, is that:
- Life is a gift,
- One day, we will die,
- Every day, we are to be wise, and
- Each of us has to figure out what that means.
© 2022 PRA
Illustration: Parable of the Unjust Steward, Johannes Luyken (1649-1712)
#lifeanddeath #beingwise #crisis #livingwisely
 Greek krisis, from the verb krinein
 Attributed to Barbara Woolworth Hutton (1912-1979), American debutante, socialite, heiress, and philanthropist.